When a writer friend of mine turned thirty a few years ago, I gave him three books, without any explanation attached: a volume of Keats, a book of Shelley, and a small collection of stories by Stephen Crane. The point being that each of these writers had done great things and had died before they were thirty years old. The gift struck just the right notes of nihilism and narcissism appropriate to the age.
In our twenties, we all harbor a private belief that we will flame out before reaching thirty. Thirty and middle age represent an annulment of everything. Thirty is a risible age. Forty is unimaginable. People who are forty-five were born old to begin with. Sixty is a different species; ambition shifts to shooting one’s age at golf. Time makes decisions for us. If we are past seven years old and are not Mozart or Heifetz, what is the point of practicing an instrument at all? Writing careers that do not vault immediately into glowing reviews in The New York Times are humdrum. Everybody is writing a shallow intelligent novel at twenty-one. Everybody has a garage band in their thirties. As we age, we pass the time by keeping score.
Chronology has always fascinated me. The measure of our days. Career stats. Great moments. Crossed paths. Generational chasms and rivalries. Time is an accumulation of facts and moments. The way these moments resonate off each other comprises the plot, such as it is, of everyday life. Consider synchronicity: did you know, for instance, that Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the very same day in 1613? Or that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the same day in 1809? (Nobody in my eighth grade English class knew, or cared, but I did.) Even ordinary lives are full of significant moments. Even the great stub their toes and fall down stairs.
Around the time my own first novel wasn’t being published, this too-clever gift of Keats and Shelley and Crane gave me an idea. I began collecting data and writing it down. Who had done what in their tenth, their eleventh, their twentieth, their thirty-ninth year? I scribbled notes in the margins of articles I was writing, in the endpapers of books I was reading. The fragments of other writers’ lives, but not only writers.’ Lives of artists, composers, boxers and quarterbacks, all the celebrated dead, accumulated like a kind of poetry. Assembling the entries year by year, it seemed as if they were all swimming together in the same stream. That was the point.
I began by going through the standard literary references. I read diaries and collected letters. I read biographies. I bought a dictionary of biographies and books of obituaries. I clipped obits from the papers. I took notes. My favorite sources of all were the various anthologies of anecdotes-sports, political, military, literary, royal, theatrical. Often it isn’t the accomplishments that define a life, but the stories people tell about their contemporaries, the gossip and the scandal.
Years passed and my collection grew, and as it grew a curious thing happened: the entries and the people in them developed a conversation among themselves. Juxtaposed lives began commenting on one another. What intrigues me is the simple fact of people doing things or not doing them, succeeding and failing, living forever and dying young — not along some infinite timeline, but simultaneously, as if everybody who ever lived was a contemporary and lived cheek by jowl.
In a way, I am there with them, as are we all, in our own years of life, looking backward, looking forward, not as young as the phenomenal Mozart or as old as Noah. This book is the product of more than a decade of reading and sorting and writing things down. I suggest you do what everyone else will do — that is, turn to the age that you are now. After that you are on your own. Leaf through it at random. Look at the year that you remember most vividly. Or start at the beginning. Even as crowded and selective a canvas as this one does have a plot to it. Jot your own story in the margin.
— Eric Hanson